Carnegie Mellon University
January 05, 2023

Inspiring the Next Generation of Artists

CMU School of Drama visits G.W. Carver Magnet High School in Houston, Texas

By Shannon Musgrave

Pamela Wigley
  • College of Fine Arts

If ever there was a test of Roshunda Jones-Koumba’s creativity, resiliency, community connection and sense of humor, it was Nov. 28, 2022. As the winner of the 2022 Excellence in Theatre Education Award presented at the Tony Awards in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, Jones-Koumba and her students at G.W. Carver Magnet High School in Houston, Texas were set to receive special visiting master classes by faculty and alumni from the CMU School of DramaThe classes were scheduled for the very November day that the entire city of Houston went under an emergency water boil notice and many schools, including Carver, were closed.

Jones-Koumba received word from her principal around 8 p.m. the night before, and by 6 a.m. the next morning, she had not only found an alternative venue for the classes — HeartBeat Houston Dance and Fitness — she had also, along with her colleague Jabari Collins, arranged for rides for all the students to the new location. Cases of water were purchased and the classes were on. 

The CMU School of Drama was represented by Head of School Robert Ramirez; Senior Associate Head and Assistant Professor of acting Kyle Haden, Professor of dance Tomé Cousin, Assistant Professor of voice Lisa Velten Smith; and alumnus Antwayn Hopper, currently appearing on Broadway in the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical "A Strange Loop."

The day kicked off with acting and voice exercises led by Haden and Velten Smith. Students warmed up their bodies and voices with Velten Smith, who used the tongue twister "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" to teach the students about creating characters and story from text. Haden worked with the students on script analysis using a scene from Eugene O’Neill’s "Ah, Wilderness!" They learned about finding beats and shifts within a scene, something Haden teaches his students at CMU. Haden and Velten Smith, both professionally-working actors, ended their session by talking with the students about the business of acting and what a professional life for an actor entails. 

The students then broke for lunch before gathering again, this time with Ramirez and Hopper for a discussion and Q&A about their own artistic paths. They each spoke about their upbringing and how the arts opened the world to them. Ramirez grew up in Los Angeles in what he described as a tiny apartment in one of the poorest areas of the city. "To think that I would someday have the life I have now," he said, "at one of the most prestigious universities, with some of the most talented faculty and students in the world, would have been unimaginable."

Hopper recalled his own teacher and mentor, Nancy Epoch, who he said was one of the first people to encourage him to pursue his passion for the arts. "Teachers are everything," he said. "Arts education is everything. I am where I am today because of the incredible teachers I’ve had."

The students asked poignant questions about building support systems, being true to oneself, and how to face challenges. Ramirez and Hopper shared frank and honest advice from their own experiences and told the students that self-discovery is a lifelong process. 

The day ended with Cousin’s choreography session. He brought instruments and led the students in a series of warmups, keeping beat with a tambourine and calling out the next steps. He taught the students an exercise that he learned as a young dancer at the Alvin Ailey School which unleashes their "inner monster."

"Every actor has a monster inside of them," Cousin told them.

Before the students departed, they circled up with each other and the teachers, holding hands, and talking about their favorite parts of the day. Hopper asked everyone to call out a word that encapsulated the day, and the room rang with shouts of "Inspirational!" "Heartfelt!" "Transformative!"

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